Six Sigma? No Thanks.

April 1, 2003
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Despite good intentions, Six Sigma can be a harmful fad.

I will never say that the content of Six Sigma is bad. I cannot say that because the content is built on the fundamental quality concepts that I am passionate about. . What I can say, though, is that Six Sigma is another repackaged quality trend that will come and go, and I’ll pass on this trend, thank you. While I believe in Six Sigma’s content, I will also add that as a trend, it has been harmful to our profession.

Quality trends du juor are part of American business culture. Quality circles, total quality management (TQM), ISO, QS, Baldrige and now Six Sigma, have all had their day as the quality solution. Employees are tired of this year’s solution. When quality programs constantly change, it is difficult to develop a quality system that can show significant results—and without significant results, management loses support from employees. This is the case with Six Sigma, as with all previous repackaged quality programs.

Quality techniques never have a chance to show the incredible benefits they offer when the quality system changes every year or two. Trends that are supposed to promote these powerful quality techniques often become totally counterproductive to quality focused improvement efforts. Quality and organizations suffer. Consultants prosper.

Six Sigma is a trend that has had an especially negative effect on the quality profession. When the American Society for Quality (ASQ) formalized a partnership with a Six Sigma consulting organization, much of its membership was up in arms about the relationship between this nonprofit professional society and a consulting firm. In my opinion, this relationship clearly upset the ASQ membership and has impacted ASQ’s credibility and perception of objectivity. In addition, ASQ’s high-profile promotion of this trend undermined ASQ’s great training programs, which focus on trendless quality basics. That’s damage that no other trend has done to this organization. I feel the damage to ASQ’s reputation is one of the main causes for a significant decline in ASQ membership.

The other aspect of the Six Sigma trend that I do not like is the legal “ownership” of the Six Sigma terminology that was formed during the early days of this trend. When I first searched the Internet to learn more about Six Sigma, I saw several articles discussing high-profile Six Sigma consultants threatening each other with legal action over the ownership of vocabulary used in the Six Sigma program. All this talk of legal action said one thing to me: Six Sigma was mainly about making a buck. I remember thinking at the time: “I doubt Deming, Shewhart and Juran ever threatened to sue each other over the use of the word ‘control chart.’ I think I’ll stick with those guys.”

The great leaders of the quality revolution of the 1980s focused on improving the competitiveness of American organizations and did all they could to spread the word. It seems to me that the Six Sigma consulting leaders’ mantra was, “spread the word, but pay me first.” The damage this caused is evident in what I see as a growing disinterest in quality techniques.

Six Sigma doesn’t help me. I have a good quality culture at my company and a team of managers that use quality theory in all their decisions. Paying a consultant to come in and tell us the “newest best way” is nothing more than an expensive distraction. When I want to improve quality skills at my company, I enroll employees and myself in classes offered by my local ASQ section for nonprofit training on the basics.

Many companies start a quality journey by latching onto a quality trend. For me, the TQM movement got me hooked. Six Sigma could be a good start to the quality journey for companies that want to initiate a quality-focused continual improvement effort. If this is the trend that gets you interested in quality, then you must focus on the content, not on the label. Make the tried-and-true quality-improvement methods and techniques a part of the company’s culture and stay focused on the tasks that lead to a healthier business, not the certificate on the wall or the color of the belt.

Has Six Sigma saved the day at your company? Is it different from previous quality trends? Has it damaged the quality profession?

Let me hear from you. The purpose of this column is to raise issues that will make us question what is going on in the quality profession and start a discussion to make it better. To keep the discussion going, send me an e-mail and let me know what you think.

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